What Went Right? The USA played with a lot of energy, athleticism and confidence. Showed a multi-dimensional ability to get forward and attack. Even though their target man, Josy Altidore, didn’t score any goals, the USA made very good use of him by getting him the ball early and often, and his ability to distribute the ball to his trailing forwards was without peer. Attacking players were just unbelievably ever-present on the attacking end. Very quick attacking buildup, mostly on the flanks, yet still managed to counterattack effectively. Very good service into the final third, and the attacking players in advanced midfield and in front got on the end of that service and took beaucoup shots. Kept their opponents on their heels by having more than one player roam on the attacking end. They were surprising effective on the flanks going forward. When they got behind they played with an urgency not seen in previous incarnations of the side. One or two mental lapses in goal was accentuate by mostly reliable goalkeeper overall, and they got better distribution from their goalkeeper than any team has any right to expect. For long stretches they showed a consistent ability to close players down. Best of all, the USA managed to overcome obscenely bad officiating and still win their group for the first time in 60 years.
What Went Wrong? They had an infuriating habit of getting down early, and as a result had to chase the game as opposed to having the game come to them. That’s because all of their opponents would find holes through the center to exploit. Mental lapses in the back and in goal were fatal. Midfield control was so-so at best, so their ability to close down opposition attacks before they got to the back was spotty. Had a habit of losing their defensive shape and composure during in long stretches. Should have scored much more than they did given the number of shots they took. The USA showed such an anxiety for getting shots off that their attackers frequently got in the way of each other. Worst of all, the USA was the recipient of obscenely bad officiating.
Who Stepped Up To The Plate? Goalkeeper Tim Howard just kinda broke even. For the most part he was reliable and steady, but his two mental lapses were offset by his ability to start the USA counterattack with the best distribution by a keeper in the tournament. The center of the backline worked best when Carlos Bocanegra partnered with Jay DeMerit, and I just loved DeMerit’s ability to close down the opposition target man. Michael Bradley was a revelation for this team, moving forward in attack, creating chances, playing with energy and urgency, and taking several quality shots himself. Of course the American attack is at its stellar best with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey making runs in the attacking end and in the box, and getting off most of the quality shots on target. Robbie Findlay and Edson Buddle (off the bench) were fantastic trailers into the box, and their speed and diagonal runs into space opened up the game for Donovan, Dempsey and Bradley to take advantage of. Jozy Altidore didn’t score but he was a great target man who got the ball in the penalty area and distributed in to the attackers.
Who Didn’t Show Up? Center back Oguchi Onyewu clearly was still not in form after his knee injury, and it showed, so it was good that he sat after the second group fixture. I just wasn’t big on fullbacks Jonathan Bornstein and Steve Cherundolo in the rear; neither did a very good job of shutting down the flanks. Maurice Edo and Ricardo Clark were the weak links in front of the backline, allowing long passes by the opposition to get to the front players and allowing the opposition forwards to get on the end of them.
How Was The Coaching? Bob Bradley is not the most intense coach but he is steady and even-keeled, is a decision-maker, and he does take risks with his roster. He has a direct attacking style and has found the players to execute it with confidence. However, while I hope he stays as the coach of the national team, it is about time he came into the 21st century and employed the more reliably attacking 4-5-1. Opponents were able to exploit the weak center of the 4-4-2.
Did They Finish Where They Were Expected? Yes, and that’s the problem. By finishing first in their group they got the dream knockout round end of the draw that had them facing Ghana in the Round of 16 and either Uruguay or South Korea in the quarterfinals. This was manna from heaven – they couldn’t have wished for a better draw – and they didn’t exploit it (Uruguay did). This end of the knockout round draw was never going to be this easy again (no offense to the other three teams intended). If they had just stop giving up those weak early goals it could have been them in the semis — and this country would have been sold on football. I wonder if they recognize the enormity of the opportunity they let pass up.
Now What? On the national team side, keep Bradley but install a 4-5-1 or some variation of it that is midfield-intensive, keeps possession, allows for offensive buildup as well as effective counterattacks, and most of all closes down that weak center. In general, there is more football talent on the ground than there has ever been, and USA Soccer is clearly beginning to tap the athletic talent in the ethnic communities of America as more youngsters are playing football in than ever before – and the numbers keep going up. What the USA needs to do is put in place a youth system much like they have in Europe and South America that keeps much of that talent playing football after age 14 instead of losing them to other more high-profile American sports.